The trees deserve all the credit. But for a forest, the underground ecosystem (soil, roots, fungi and microorganisms) is just as important.
Traditionally, the aerial ecosystem has been studied more often. According to researcher Whitney Stohr, “Aerial organisms, tree stands and the forest cover are immediately identifiable elements of a forest ecosystem; we do not generally refer to the subsoil to describe a forest in everyday language. This is because “the subsoil remains, physically and therefore metaphorically, out of sight, out of the mind”.
Healthy forests are important to a healthy future, and a healthy future begins underground. Forests account for 70 percent of terrestrial biodiversity, and most of it is underground. In addition, most of a forest’s carbon storage and sequestration, essential for mitigating climate change, occurs underground.
When it comes to forest ecosystem services, or natural benefits, trees often come first to mind: they provide aesthetics, air and water filtration, and habitat. But many of these processes start underground. Forests account for 25 percent of the world’s biomass and the fine root systems of trees are responsible for 75 percent of forest biomass production. This organic matter is essential for healthy soils and is a food source for many different species.
Subterranean ecosystems are not only a source of food, they are also essential habitat. Fifty percent of animal biodiversity is found underground. The ecosystem below includes bacteria, fungi, and nematodes, to name a few. These often forgotten ecosystems are more diverse than the surface, and these species are responsible for many ecosystems that plants, animals and humans depend on, including water purification, soil health and decomposition.
The nutrient cycle and carbon storage take root in the soil. The nutrient cycle, including the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle, takes place largely underground. These processes influence water health, plant growth, and greenhouse gas sequestration. Beyond forests, underground health strongly influences food production.
Many recent studies have sought to examine how above-ground and underground ecosystems interact. These studies may indicate that when one part of the ecosystem is out of balance, so will the other. Stohr gives the example of forest conversion. Converting forests to agriculture can reduce plant diversity and impact nutrient cycling, which in turn affects the food web and biomass inputs into the ecosystem.
Stohr suggests several avenues to increase awareness in the basement. First, increased research funding can expand our current knowledge of these ecosystems and their importance. This can lead to policies that protect the entire forest ecosystem, not just the trees. Stohr concludes: “Effective scientific, political and global decision-making can increase current attention to subsurface ecosystems and positively advance scientific research and available funding for ecological restoration of the entire forest environment.” .
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By: WHITNEY G. STOHR JDLL.M.
Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, Vol. 15, n ° 4 (December 2013), pp. 1-17
World Scientific Publishing Co., Inc.